India is caught in a challenging dilemma. It needs two decades of peace to consolidate itself domestically, reform the economy and raise its GDP to at least four times the current level.
The surrender of Afghanistan by the US to the Pak-Taliban combine is a conscious, hard decision to cut its losses in an endless war. Whether Kabul was expected to fall in a matter of weeks is a minor issue despite the drama associated with the event; the grim fate of the girls and women of Afghanistan and its shrunken minorities will be duly handed over to handwringing by cynical Western human rights entrepreneurs. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan somewhat parallels the retrenchment from Iraq. It is also being complemented by an apparent attempt to ease the deadlock with Iran over Syria and the Yemen. It implies less concern with the outcome of the civil wars in both despite the deep misgivings over the decision in Jerusalem and Riyadh. An apparently unrelated and mostly unreported event is the signing of the MMC economic agreement by the US with Nepal, which had earlier baulked at the idea. China’s extremely hostile reception to it is suggestive of something more than mere developmental goals of the MMC, e.g., US interest in Tibet’s future. But all these events are connected, as are the recent visits of US State and Defence Secretaries to New Delhi.
The US is rapidly repositioning its resources and attention for a much more purposive impending confrontation with China over the South China Sea, Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific. The US is evidently buckling its gun belt for a showdown with China. The recent ramping up of US accusations over the coronavirus pandemic is an aspect of the deadly military and political contest that China’s collapsing international esteem, owing to the worldwide devastation caused by it, will surely abet. It has been understood that the leak of coronavirus was accidental and due to the notorious ineptitude and poor safety measures that obtain in countless labs across China that are engaged in conducting highly dangerous experiments that have military uses. Such experiments include everything from splicing life forms to invent entirely new ones and enhancing animal endurance with drugs that could help create comparable humanoids. It seems that once the coronavirus leaked, China’s communists took a decision to allow its spread abroad, expecting to control it within their own territory. Chinese military scholars had already published research on the consequences and speculated on the political and military benefits of creating global chaos. And the corona pandemic has indeed paid rich political and military dividends to China, by weakening and distracting adversaries and helping remove President Donald Trump from office.
It will only be clear if India’s huge corona setback has dealt a comparable blow to the problem of a politically assertive and geopolitically ambitious Narendra Modi that China and Pakistan perceive. That will be fully apparent after the state Assembly elections of UP in early 2022. This particular election will be an international tourney with many outside players actively seeking to impact its outcome. But Chinese planners, who usually look much ahead, had managed to infiltrate and corrupt the Indian political opposition much earlier, with outright bribery and possibly honeytraps, to which many Indian leaders and their sidekicks appear to easily succumb. Yet, the worst that happened in India recently was the treachery of leading Indian political parties who joined in the celebrations of the hundredth anniversary of an organisation that has murdered more people than Tamerlane and Genghis Khan combined. The Pak card is of course the ace that China has long been able to use, switching it on and off like a tap against India. Modi’s prescient amendment to Article 370 has thrown a veritable spanner in their works though much more mischief is likely now that the Taliban, with its very close ties to Jaish-e-Mohammed, is in the saddle. However, the repositioning of the US may be causing China to pause in Ladakh, though Narendra Modi’s robust response to the land grab appears to have caught the overconfident and arrogant communists by surprise too.
It is also becoming clear that Chinese largesse abroad allows compelling influence over some of the world’s most prestigious media outlets and there is also significant Chinese access to most US social media platforms, all of which excoriate India without respite. The only saving grace in the situation is that the libellous fabrications and misreporting are so blatant that their credibility has been blunted. The predicament highlights the extent of the historic cupidity of the US, which allowed carte blanche to Chinese Communist Party activity in its elite universities, unrestricted access to commerce and trade and investment in its social media. The extent of China’s pernicious global reach has recently been highlighted by an extraordinary apologia on its behalf by a former Prime Minister of Australia, who is now an Oxford student. He is no doubt being tutored by Oxford University notables, with an eye on the main chance, who write glowingly about the Chinese Communist Party, a criminal organisation that competes with the Nazis for reputational ignominy. The same worthies are also engaged in unremitting denunciation of India and all its evil works. All of this points to the ambiguity posed by India’s ardent new international friends whose reliability might be tested at the most inconvenient moment for it.
The fly in the ointment remains the US defence establishment’s, State Department’s and Washington think-tanks’ obsession with first eliminating Russia from the international geopolitical stage before dealing with China’s threat to US global primacy. The Russian conundrum is to do with the fact that it alone has the capacity to launch a second-strike against the US, which the US is determined to mitigate sufficiently to bring Russia to heel. The strategy is to emplace US strategic assets so close to the Russian border that the US can threaten an unexpected first-strike to eliminate most Russian nuclear assets and then hope to interdict the remainder, launched as retaliatory second-strike, with anti-ballistic missiles. Hence, the ongoing dispute over the Ukraine, etc. Of course, these issues encounter enormous imponderables, but the game-theoretic purpose is to create sufficient anxiety in the minds of Russian planners to compel their cooperation on diverse issues, not least the Middle East and eastern Europe. The problem is that Russia refuses to be cowed and has begun to take myriad countermeasures, the result being a new arms race that such attempts to eliminate a rival always precipitates. Unfortunately, the situation has created serious difficulties for India’s long-standing and mutually-trusting relationship with Russia as its proximity to the US has grown in the past two decades. And to such an extent that a Russo-Pak entente is apparently emerging though that also has something to do with Russia’s desire to secure its Central Asian flank, for which Pakistan is a key player.
India is caught in a challenging dilemma. It needs two decades of peace to consolidate itself domestically, reform the economy and raise its GDP to at least four times the current level. It still won’t result in catch-up with China, though the latter’s growth will almost certainly slow by then and other troubles may beset its economy and polity. But the peaceful hiatus would allow India to significantly close relevant military and technological gaps with China and become a more forbidding adversary. In the meantime, India has to play an extraordinarily deft diplomatic game of reducing points of friction with suspicious countries like Russia and Iran and keep others, like the UAE, a crucial US ally in its global repositioning project, on board. India also needs to develop its strategic nuclear assets, the immediate task being the acquisition of at least three or four nuclear submarines to secure its triad and that is indeed underway. India also needs to re-think how to signal its intentions for their use to deter China. But the serious problem India faces is the scale of the infiltration of its highly porous society and polity and the ability of adversaries to slow or even halt major developmental efforts which are, understandably, their primary goal. The opposition to the CAA, the resulting Delhi riots and the violent famers’ dispute, none of which have any political or intellectual merit, are indications of how easy it is to besiege and hobble the Central government, even one with a majority though that too is a situation that is unlikely to prevail in the future. In addition, evangelists are opportunistically using India’s vulnerability and dependence on US goodwill to successfully convert on a massive scale, creating durable facts on the ground that will make it impossible for Union governments to manage the Indian polity and direct its future.
Dr Gautam Sen taught international political economy for over two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science.